Fourthwrite ➖ Republicanism ... Alive or Dying?

Anthony McIntyre - It has always been the political craft of courtiers and court government to abuse something which they call republicanism but what that republicanism is or was they never attempt to explain – Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man.

Where now republicanism in Ireland? Is there life after death? Are those seeking to revive it merely wasting their energy giving the kiss of life to a corpse?

Without giving it much thought it is tempting to say that republicanism in Ireland is in a crisis. But even that is hardly true, being much too sanguine an observation. There is no crisis. This is so because there is no longer any social phenomenon that we may term republicanism. The perennial pockets of the faithful exist here and there, for the most part taking cultural form. But as a social phenomenon of any political import republicanism has ceased to function.

In recent years republicanism has more than anything else been linked to the Provisional project in the north. However, as a result of the peace process the republican dimension to Provisional politics has been effectively routed. The Provos now endorse everything their republican character previously opposed. Their support for the partition principle, politely termed consent, premised as it is on a legitimate British right to be in Ireland, negates any claim on their part to traditional republican credentials. The one time Republican Movement is safely corralled within a right wing British administration in the north and its prospects in the Republic seem decidedly bleak.

The armed dissidents, with or without their informer contingent, are making no comparable impact to their equally informer riddled Provisional forerunners. The unarmed dissidents critique without strategising, showing the rock where the northern republican struggle was beached but without charting a new course away from the debris.

In the south all shades of political opinion lay claim to the republican mantle while at the same time doing little to demonstrate that their republic is in any real sense all that different from the current British monarchy. It is easier to feel that the Republic is a monarchy without a king than to think England is a Republic with one. As is argued by Dorothy Thompson in the second edition of the Republic edited by Finbar Cullen and Aengus O Snodaigh there is in England today virtually no residual trace of the 19th century republicanism that once rummaged there.

Given this state of play it is either the most useless or conversely appropriate time to be perusing this collection of essays on republicanism. Were it a death certificate masquerading as something else its editors would need to beg forgiveness. Too many young people answered previous clarion calls of the republican bugle and ended up committing murder to the sound of trumpets. But the book is more than that. It urges no one to take up a gun so that the shackles of British imperialism preventing Paisley from becoming first minister can be removed. The essays in fact paid little attention to recent republicanism, opting instead for a broader historical sweep, most of which is conceptually rooted in a European and American context.

The problem poser here is that republicanism as a concept can be so embracing as to include virtually everyone opposed to monarchical rule. If Bertie Ahern can claim to be a socialist then almost anyone can claim to be a republican. In a post modernist world where all narratives are broken down into the free standing atoms that form them and are allowed to drift into other narratives which are in turn dispersed and fragmented, it is easy to see why such conceptual promiscuity is possible. But if republicanism is viewed as a systematic history of ideas rather than a whatever you’re having yourself philosophy then at its heart are core tenets that it seeks to promote and which distance it from the other perspectives that seek to utilise its insights.

It stands apart from nationalism in that interdependence rather than commonality defines it. What differentiates it from liberalism is that it relies on collective and participatory citizen action to promote the common good rather than on the rule of law to protect individual rights. Nationalism and liberalism in articulating republican elements into their own discourses do little to promote republicanism and everything to reinforce nationalism and liberalism.

Republicanism poses a particular challenge to nationalism in that it is based on citizenship rather than commonality. The point is illuminated in the collection of essays by showing that Germans living in Russia could obtain German citizenship as soon as they arrived on German soil but Turks living for years in Germany were denied citizenship.

Whereas liberalism is concerned, it is given to using rights as an ideological weapon in the battle against republicanism. One of the most exasperating comments in the rights debate is the oft quoted one that people are born free and that rights are somehow natural. A second’s reflection will more than suffice to convince that at the moment of birth we are least free, being totally dependent on others to deal with the unremitting attrition of need. Rights are not given but are socially constructed. Without activism and constant vigilance they can be eroded much easier than they are won.

In this respect Irish republicans of the physical force tradition got one thing right. Like Machiavelli they were republicans for the hard times. The hard times for them however not only see them pitched against the British but also against democratic sentiment. Theirs is an elitist republicanism that values struggle regardless of the wider community rather than struggle as part of it.

This is where a citizen powered republicanism has something to offer modern society. The phrase of Anatole France that the law permits rich and poor alike to sleep under the bridges of the River Sienne sums up the nature of liberalism and the challenge that republicanism can mount to it. Who but the poor would need to sleep there? Liberalism would recoil at the republican view of Rousseau that ‘no citizen should be so rich as to buy another and none so poor that he is constrained to sell himself.’

In order to pursue this to its logical conclusion republicanism need not necessarily be socialist. But its emphasis on promoting the common good gives it a strong social character that would see it in a state of perpetual tension with liberalism.

Yet if it is to be truly social republicanism must avoid all that which denies the social. While certain republican ideas predated the enlightenment it is equally indisputable that modern republicanism is a product of the enlightenment. Yet all too frequently republicanism has been associated with the absolutist tendencies that the enlightenment was a reaction against.

Consequently, it is a cause of much regret that anti-intellectualism has featured so strongly within the sphere of Irish republicanism. The current Provos who sometimes like to trace their antecedents to Wolfe Tone seem to practice only his opposition to a free press. The dissidents share with the Provos a dislike of discussion not ordained by them. In their world view censorship is a crime only when practiced by the Provos. The various republican parties of the south including the ‘true’ one hammered home Section 31 with a venom.

If republicanism is to re-emerge and promote the common good then it can ill afford to subvert free inquiry. It is the necessary condition for republicanism to flourish in. It is also the one guarantor against the more totalitarian impulses that have often embedded themselves within a range of international republican tendencies.

Cullen and O’Snodaigh by prising open the clamps that for long shackled intellectual discussion have allowed important questions to be asked. The challenge is for a moribund republicanism not to reinvent itself as something else but to return to the basics from which it was spawned. As we become subsumed within our comprehensively interdependent world the outcome of what seem absolutely rational decisions made at an individual level can be socially catastrophic. Take global warming for example. The potential for burn out is increased by individuals and nations insisting on pursuing their own rights as insular entities. Warmed by their own separate fires they remain oblivious to the conflagration that awaits them. Republicanism by its rejection of the notion that ‘we all in this alone’, through its insights, may offer more light than heat.

Pubished in Fourthwrite, Winter 2007, and The Blanket, January, 2008.


  1. Your distinction between commonality and interdependence opens up the telling-- but often ignored-- gap between nationalism and republicanism well. This essay clearly presents the distinction in the ideal of a Republic.

    One question that I would have for a future consideration: what aspects of republicanism as you view it today can be traced back to having been incorporated, however clumsily or fragmentarily, into such documents as the Proclamation and the 1919 Democratic Programme?

    Can these statements still be regarded as at all feasible as blueprints for a far different Irish polity today? Or, are they better left to the museum rather than as viable alternatives for the globalized capitalism that has triumphed? Do republicans need to rewrite new ones? Do such manifestoes still play a role now, or does the Net somehow turn the dissemination of a strategy and a platform into a whole new "agora"?

  2. Very interesting, but how do you square-off republican ideals with the economy, as per the other comment, a globalised one. Such economic activities place people in work and the economy is itself a form of superior control and indeed also a form of 'civilisation'.

    "doing little to demonstrate that their republic is in any real sense all that different from the current British monarchy. It is easier to feel that the Republic is a monarchy without a king than to think England is a Republic with one."

    Good take, sometimes it is like splitting hairs between the two in many ways, not getting down to the finer constitutional aspects however, but in the news etc you do tend to get that feel of new British-Irish similarities.

    In relation to this right-wing British policy, I think everything is all to play for, but democratically. Britain views Northern Ireland as a divided society re national identity. It would seem its current actionable policy is one of a conscious national detachment.

    Example - Gordon Brown's speech:

    "And in 2008, with firm conviction and resolve, we will make the case for the United Kingdom - standing up for the cause of the Union and against secession, showing people in all parts of the country that for so many of the challenges our country faces - from climate change to terrorism - there are no Wales-only, Scotland-only or England-only solutions."

  3. Fionnchu, I suppose I would have to reread both the Proclamation and the 1919 Democratic Programme to give you a thoughtful response. My problem with revisiting any of those documents, the Proclamation in particular, is that the one flame they always keep alight is that of the militarist. I doubt very much if the documents in what they say should be used as a blueprint for today. The shadow and penumbra, as they sometimes say about past documents, can add weight to this or that but the more shadowy the more open to any interpretation. I think republicanism has to write new ones. Just as a medical doctor of today can hardy rely on knowledge from a century ago. And the Proclamation is hardly penicillin.


  4. Democratic-centre, the issue is to what degree relations of domination and dependence are inscribed into economic relations. Where they are, how then shall republicanism incorporate the interests of the dominated and dependent into its project? I think the notion that the economy places people in work is much too benign. It positions people and consequently often disadvantages them. It even excludes them from work in many cases.
    As for Brown, this is typical but essentially disguises the fact that Britain now has a number of strategic reasons for remaining in the North which did not exist a number of years ago - the need to prevent any territorial fragmentation of the UK as a means to preventing Scotland going; and the strategic value of the place as a site for MI5.

  5. Interesting stuff, but do you see no hope for SF at all? Is it not possible for people within the party to change it? What is your opinion of people such as O'Broin?

  6. " This is so because there is no longer any social phenomenon that we may term republicanism."
    This is probably the most important statement of the whole article. Now that Britain has washed it's historical hands clean of any historical blame for what has happened here and successfully laid the blame for Ireland's woes at the republican door and an analysis which the majority of people on this Island agree with, there really isn't much left to gripe about, now is there?
    And so, those of a radical nature now find themselves at a loss....Rebels without a cause!